Belgravia is not burning, and the City is still safe
A VIEW FROM DOWN UNDER. Andrew Dyson in Melbourne 'Age'
OVER four days in August, riots and looting in London and other English cities and towns have caused widespread damage. Four people were killed. Over a thousand arrested. Armoured vehicles were out in Clapham, something not seen since the 1926 general strike. On Tuesday night over 16,000 police were mobilised on the streets of London, and even in quiet suburban areas where nothing was happening shopkeepers were advised to close early and old people to stay indoors - whether an over-reaction or a propaganda move.
The Prime Minister and the Mayor of London had to cut short their holidays, and MPs were recalled. To hear them talk the trouble that flared up was just down to "criminality", and "sick" people, in no way connected with social causes or government policies. Yet there were no fires in Belgravia or Mayfair, which have their share of criminals, nor windows smashed in the City of London, where bankers and speculators loot whole nations and continents. One could define and almost predict the social geography of the rioting, and we can see its political limits.
Indeed the first outbreaks came from the same places which saw rioting in the 1980s, Broadwater Farm and Brixton, followed by Liverpool. But contrary to what some foreign observers seemed to assume, though black youth feeling against the police was an issue, these were not "race" but class riots. In some places it seemed the majority of the youth on the street were white. Outside the big cities there were riots in places known as islands of poverty amid affluence. The majority of those arrested and brought to courts which are working overtime are under 24, many under 18, and most are unemployed.
The initial explosion of anger in Tottenham was sparked off by the police killing of Mark Duggan on Thursday evening, August 4, as he was on his way home in a minicab. The reaction was not instantaneous, and the dead man's family and friends have said they did not want the violence. But as with the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes on the Underground at Stockwell, the police were a lot quicker at putting out a story to justify the shooting than they have been at telling the truth.
Mark Duggan, a 29-year old father of two had been killed by members of the specialist armed police unit CO19 who were waiting for him with officers involved in Operation Trident, supposedly aimed at black gun crime. We were told a police officer had been wounded in a gunfight. The Independent Police Complaints Commission, which quickly took over the investigation, said a non-police issue handgun was recovered from the scene and a bullet was found lodged in a police officer's radio. Ballistics tests later revealed this bullet had come from a police weapon, and ricocheted after hitting Mark Duggan in the arm. There was no evidence to prove the other weapon found, wrapped in a sock, had belonged to Duggan, or that he had fired it. No wounded officer, no gunfight.
Meanwhile rumours were circulating, locally and on the internet, that police had dragged Mark Duggan from his cab, held him down and shot him. Neither the Met nor the IPCC apparently felt obliged to get in touch properly with Duggan's family, who were left in the dark mourning a loved one and feeling they did not count. It was 36 hours before they were even allowed to see the body.
Despite the fact that it kicked off with young, disadvantaged and mostly black young people confronting the state, this was not the first round of "the revolution", as some starry-eyed romantic lefties seemed to hope, not even "working class youth fighting back", as a friend in my old home town, Salford, claimed, at least not in a conscious sense. The people who set fire to a carpet store in Tottenham gave no thought to the working class families in flats above, who lost everything and were lucky to get out alive. Three young Asian guys hit by a car and killed in Birmingham were only trying to protect their family shop and homes, just as they might at other times had to fight off racist attacks. They were not guarding Buckingham Palace or the City banks, and nor was the man in Ealing who died from a beating, after trying to stop youths setting light to bins by his road.
It makes no sense to spin illusions in what riots can achieve, crediting all the crowd with lofty aims, nor to judge them as though all and everybody was responsible for what each did. A crowd of individuals can range from those who want to make a point, and are genuinely angry, through those who are there for the buzz, or a fight, to those who have merely come along to watch, and then maybe seen the opportunity to join in looting, grabbing whatever they can. In one place people were videoed looting Poundstretcher, which hardly suggests great ambition, nor a criminal master plan, but does look as though they were hard up.
For David Cameron, of course, it was all "sheer criminality", and disregard for the community, forgetting the time he and Mayor Boris were raising cain in the notorious Bullingden Club, but forgetting too that it was his grand dame (and Blair's too) Baroness Thatcher who declared "There is no such thing as society". For over two decades the Tories, their media, and New Labour have denigrated the workers' part in creating wealth, done everything to weaken and undermine union solidarity, and destroyed working class communities, as we saw with the miners. They freed capitalists and bankers to seek profit wherever and however they can, and competed in extolling acquisitive individualism.
What's more our MPs and leaders set a good example. As a remark making the rounds on Facebook observes, "Jim Sheridan, Lembit Opik, David Crausby, Shahid Malik, Ruth Kelly among those who looted plasma TVs on their expenses - and they're on £64k salaries. None of them went to jail". Nor indeed did Salford MP and ex-minister Hazel Blears, now condemning the rioters, feel too badly about charging the taxpayer for an £800 bed. Neither Margaret Thatcher nor Tony Blair got where they are by hard work and honesty. One led a government that was "economical with the truth" to help arm Saddam's Iraq, the other lied to go to war helping destroy that country.
The politicians who are condemning the youth and demanding that parents "take responsibility", with the threat of evictions and stopping people's benefits (what about those who like some of the football hooligans have well-paid jobs and are home owners?), will not face their own responsibilities. But on top of the industries and jobs they have seen off, their cuts alone are doing much bigger and more long-lasting damage than the riots and vandalism.
In some of the areas where rioting took place there is 30 per cent and more unemployment, particularly affecting the young. Young people who might stay on or go to college in the hope of improving their chances with qualifications, or even try unpaid work experience, are being deprived of the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) which was supposed to help those from poor families do just that. Local authorities are cutting youth services, libraries, sports centres, swimming pools. Besides leaving young people with nothing to do, it may be sending them a certain message.
Now the message from Communities(sic) and Local Government Minister Eric Pickles is that he is sure magistrates will hand out sentences that reflect "the public's anger", (the judiciary in this country is supposed to be independent, by the way). He and Cameron still intend to cut police budgets and manpower, but will strengthen police powers. The fire service, who were praised for the brave way they got to the blazes, is also facing cuts. Cameron is talking of taking powers to curb social networking sites on the internet, which were apparently a Good Thing in the Arab Spring but a Bad Thing in the British Summer and Autumn. That makes it easier for government to control the news.
As for the 'Opposition' , Labour's Glenda Jackson MP (Hampstead and Highgate) claims the youngsters were privileged with BlackBerrys (whatever they are. I'm too old!) and wants water cannon used, as does mayoral hopeful Ken Livingstone, leaving Tory Home Secretary Theresa May who has been reluctant, looking like a liberal softie.
Still, never mind. Senior police officers can feel relieved the heat has fallen away from the hacking and corruption scandal, and they are being criticised for supposedly holding back. Belgravia is not burning, and the City is still safe. For now.